Sermon for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, November 18, 2012. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Daniel 12:1-3       Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25
Psalm 16            Mark 13:1-8

A heart for healing

“I will bless the Lord who gives me counsel; my heart teaches me, night after night.” (Psalm 16:7)

Let’s begin where the Gospel begins: with predictions of breakdown and distress.  As Jesus comes out of the temple, one of his disciples admires how solid the building is, how large it is, how grand.  Surely it will last forever!  But Jesus turns to him and says, “Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2).  All will be thrown down.  As if that weren’t enough, Jesus goes on to predict “wars and rumors of wars… Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines” (Mark 13:7a, 8).

Whoa – these are not the consoling words that we want to hear when we come to church!  Jesus’ predictions of war and natural disaster resonate with what may already be on our minds this morning, we who are following the news of the accelerating conflict in the Middle East, with rockets striking the outskirts of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and Israeli tanks and troops marching toward the Gaza Strip.  The possibility of all-out war is alarming countries around the world.  Alongside our ardent prayers for peace, we lift up our sorrow for the death of innocents and our hope for a peaceful and just resolution.

Every year, as the cycle of the church years comes to a close and we head into Advent, our Scripture readings always turn our attention to the end times, giving us images of breakdown and violence, and reminding us that everything we suffer is being held in God.  Today is a good day to bring to mind not only the anguish of the Middle East, but all the places in the world and in our own lives that cry out for healing.  As usual, I bring to the conversation my concern about the wounding of the natural world on which we depend.  I heard Bill McKibben speak this week in Boston to almost three thousand people, so I am freshly reminded of the urgent need to tackle climate change and to stop the unraveling of life as we know it on this planet.

So here is Jesus predicting suffering and breakdown, telling us that “all will be thrown down.”  Yet in the very same passage he also tells us: “do not be alarmed” (Mark 13:7).  “Do not be alarmed,” he says. “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” (Mark 13:8).  Birth pangs?  It seems that Jesus is so deeply attuned to the loving purposes of God, so transparent to the creative Spirit and power of God, that even in the midst of suffering and war, even in the midst of violence and death, he sees beyond everything that is passing, everything that is mortal, and into the heart of God.  He knows that in God’s presence, something new and holy is surely being born, and he offers himself as a midwife, a healer, a peacemaker.

So here’s my question: how do we do that?  In the midst of the pain and fragility of life, how do we grow the heart of a healer?  Can we do what Jesus did – can we find the holy strength not to turn away from the world’s pain, but rather to turn toward it, to touch it with love, and to invite something new to be born?  Can we become divine channels that bring wholeness and wellbeing to a broken world?  How do we become the healing presence that intuitively we know we were born to be?  This is no small question, because as never before, the human community needs people with a healed and healing heart.

I’d like to propose a framework for the heart that can show us how to live into this scary time as healers in the midst of a hurting world.  I want to suggest three aspects of a healer’s heart, three places along the path of inner transformation as we grow a heart for healing. 

Here’s the first: healers have an awakened heart.  What is an awakened heart?  An awakened heart is a heart that is more and more deeply, more and more frequently, more and more consciously attuned to divine love.  A person with an awakened heart is someone whose heart is being touched again and again and again by a boundless love that seems to well up from nowhere.  A person with an awakened heart is someone who is learning to see themselves, and others, and all creation, with eyes of love. 

This is the stage of the journey when we perceive the beauty and preciousness of God’s creation.  We experience gratefulness, wonder, amazement, and awe.  Moments of our heart’s awakening may come very quietly, as when we gaze at a sleeping child or at a pond that is filling with rain.  For a moment our heart awakens, and we know that we are part of a sacred mystery that infuses all things and yet transcends them, too.  Somehow that loving, nameless, sacred mystery is giving itself to us in whatever we are gazing at – in the sleeping child, in the grass, the wind, the water – and we are giving ourselves back to that holy presence, saying “I love you, too.”  In moments like these our heart awakens.  We step into the great love affair that is always going on between God and God’s creation. 

Now, we can’t awaken our hearts by ourselves.  We can’t do that any more than we can make the wind blow.  But we can take up spiritual practices that make us available to the divine presence that awakens the heart.  We can keep the windows open, so that the wind of the Spirit can blow in.  Here are a couple of spiritual practices that help to awaken the heart.

One is to learn to be still and to pay attention.  Prayer is essentially paying attention.  You remember the story of Moses and the burning bush.  Moses was surely an attentive man.  It takes patient attentiveness to notice that a bush is ablaze, and yet not consumed by the fire.  Moses’ encounter with the flaming bush is the archetype of mystical experience: only a calm, patient mind can perceive the divine presence that burns in every bush.  So we learn to be quiet and pay attention, to still ourselves and to listen in silence to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our hearts.

A second way to cultivate an awakened heart is to practice gratitude.  Gratitude unlocks the heart’s constricted places.  Gratitude reveals that all life is gift.  This day is a gift.  This breath is a gift.  Our next breath belongs more to God than it does to us1 – it’s all gift.  As we learn to breathe with gratefulness, we learn to trust the deep-down, God-given goodness of our life as it is given to us, moment by moment. 

So we cultivate an awakened heart, a heart that is grounded in God’s love.  But because divine love never holds itself back from the suffering places of the world – because divine love never closes itself off, never insulates itself in its own safe little bubble or cocoon – because divine love never tries to rise up and float away from the messiness and the brokenness of life, but rather comes down and abides with us, pouring itself out to touch and heal the world’s pain, healers have not only an awakened heart – they also have a broken heart.  A healer’s heart is willing to suffer, to feel pain.  So that is the second aspect of a healer’s heart: it is a wounded heart, a heart that is willingly pierced by grief.  Paradoxically, surrending to grief in the presence of divine love does not diminish us, but opens us to a new kind of empowerment and a completely new experience of hope.

Still, there are many reasons we resist exploring this aspect of a healer’s heart, many reasons that we fear and repress our grief.  Who wants to feel pain?  Nobody.  Plus I know that I don’t want to look morbid; I don’t want to bring anyone down; I don’t want to look weak and emotional.  Yet we do feel pain for the world.  We can’t help it.  No one is exempt from it, for we are part of the world, part of creation, part of the whole web of life.

So can we let ourselves feel our grief?  Can we let ourselves feel the pain of a broken heart?  How do we open to the pain of our precious world without drowning in it, without being overcome?  The place I go in prayer when I am overwhelmed by the pain of the world is to the cross of Christ.  As I experience it, the cross of Christ is planted deep within me, and at the cross I can express my anger, fear, and grief, for I trust that at the cross, everything is being blessed and transformed in the light of limitless, eternal love.  Whatever I need to feel and to express – rage, sorrow, fear, guilt, whatever – all of it is being met with love.  As I see it, crucifixion is the place where God breaks through our numbness and denial.  The cross is where we can finally face and bear all that we know about the pain of the world, and where God in Christ can bear what we cannot bear our selves.  I can’t bear it, but Christ can bear it in me.

Whatever sacred images we use to explore a healer’s broken heart, I think it is good to let our selves feel anger – because anger is an expression of love.  I think it is good to let our selves feel emptiness – because emptiness creates a space for something new to arise. I think it is good to let our selves feel fear – because in itself that is an act of courage.  I think it is good to let our selves feel sorrow – because shedding tears can water the soul and bring new life.

So, what are the losses you need to mourn?  What are the tears you need to shed?  As a spiritual practice for welcoming a broken heart, we can write a prayer of lament or protest.  We can make a confession.  We can spend time in intercession, praying for the hurting places of the world.  As my husband, Robert Jonas recently remarked, tears can be the dark river of hope carrying us to new life.

As healers with a broken heart, we know that the darkness inside us and outside us is real.  But even in the darkest places of our lives, a light is shining.  The light of the divine is tender, enlivening, and pure.  It speaks in silence, saying: I see you.  I know what you are going through.  I love you.  In the radiance of that light -- which sees us in our entirety, which sees us whole -- we learn to embrace and accept every part of our selves.  Slowly we learn to perceive the world like that, too, to experience its ugliness, peril, and beauty with an open heart.  And then we feel a desire to share this glimpse of God with others.

Now we come to the third part of this spiritual framework for sustaining our selves as healers.  Filled with love, because day by day our heart is being awakened, and open to the pain of life, because day by day our heart is broken and yet whole, we now want the love that is flowing into our life to pour out into the world around us.  We have been cultivating an awakened heart, we are accepting a broken heart, and now we want to express what I’m calling a radiant heart.  We want our lives to bear witness in tangible ways to the love that has set us free from the tyranny of suffering and death. 

This is what Christians call an experience of resurrection: we are filled with a divine spirit, a Holy Spirit, that sends us out as healers, as justice-seekers, as peace-makers.  We want to share in God’s mission of restoring all people and all creation to unity with God and each other in Christ.  We want to bear witness to the Christ who bursts out of the tomb, who proclaims that life, not death, has the last word, and who gives us power to roll away the stone.

I want to be clear that actions that are expressed by a radiant heart spring from freedom, not from compulsion.  I know that I can easily get very busy -- all of us can.  But being busy does not necessarily mean that we are manifesting a radiant heart.  

For instance, sometimes I get busy because I have lost touch with my basic preciousness: I think that I must prove my worth, prove my value, earn my own salvation.  Then I have to say to myself, “Margaret, remember that you are cultivating an awakened heart.  Find a way to breathe in the love of God.  Let yourself rest in God’s goodness and let yourself know again how loved you are.” 

Or I get busy because I want to stay one step ahead of my feelings -- I don’t want to feel the pain or grief; I would much rather keep moving, keep multitasking.  Then I have to say to myself, “Margaret, remember that you have accepted a broken heart.  Go back to the cross.  Let yourself stop for a while and bring whatever is in you to the crucified Christ, where everything in you is met with love.” 

When we know that we are cherished to the core, and when we discover that our pain and anguish is met again and again by the ever-renewed, ever-merciful, ever-abundant love of God, then our actions are more likely to spring from wisdom than from compulsion or fear, and we can carry them out with a sense of spaciousness and freedom, unattached to results.  Unattached to results.  We manifest a radiant heart. 

I give thanks for the wisdom in this room, for the awakened and broken and radiant hearts that you express.  I thank God for the healing that each of us has already experienced, for the healing that we will experience in the future, for the healing that we have already been graced to accomplish, and for the healing that we will accomplish in God’s good time.   

In a few moments we will have an opportunity to bring forward the pledges that will sustain this community in the coming year.  Thank you for sharing in this journey with me as brothers and sisters in Christ, as together – in the words of our second reading – in the midst of all life’s challenges we “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering” and “consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:23a, 24).    

“I will bless the Lord who gives me counsel; my heart teaches me, night after night” (Psalm 16:7).  

1. This is a point made by Dr. James Finley in his excellent CD series, "Transforming Trauma.".